Ignatius Pollaky, a Sherlock Holmes in 1874?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 20, 2013

Ignatius Pollaky is without question the most mysterious of great detectives. In researching Brilliant Deduction, I pieced together enough to get a sense of the man and his career, but much remains and probably will remain unknown. I don’t know what day he was born, and the only image of the man is a caricature from Figaro’s London Sketch Book of Celebrities; it looks as though it may have been drawn from a portrait, but who can say.

There’s something else possibly even more mysterious about that particular drawing, however. Care to guess?

Pollaky, professional snoop

Image from The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum Collection.

What on earth is going on with that shadow on the door? It looks like nothing so much as a silhouette of the iconic image of Sherlock Holmes, with deerstalker hat, cape and magnifying glass. Which seems natural enough; Pollaky was a famed London consulting detective with more than a few connections to Holmes. He was even called “A Sherlock Holmes in Real Life” at least once.

Except this image is dated 1874. Sherlock Holmes didn’t exist (even as a fictional character) until a dozen years later, and the popular image of him with cap and cape wasn’t really established until some years after that. So, what’s the deal? Are the history books wrong? Has history itself been tampered with? Did Pollaky know H.G. Wells? Or is this whole thing somehow just a put-on (a question difficult to avoid at least every now and then when considering Pollaky for any length of time)?

My best guess: like at least some of Pollaky’s other connections with Holmes (explored a little in Brilliant Deduction), this is probably a coincidence if a very strange coincidence. After thinking about it a while, I suspect that what looks like Holmes’s deerstalker cap actually looks more like the helmet of a London policeman, and that this drawing was probably intended to hint at Pollaky’s status as a kind of “shadow investigative officer” using the iconography available at the time. Which in this case just happened to prefigure the most popular icon that later generations would adopt for the same purpose.

Still: very, very weird.

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